Twenty years ago, the famed Yale child psychiatrist and educator James Comer published a book, “Waiting for A Miracle: Why Schools Can’t Solve Our Problems and How We Can.”
Two decades later, Americans still fall for the notion of “miracle schools,” those hailed by politicians and policymakers as having some secret sauce that can turn around troubled schools seemingly without much trouble and work wonders for needy students.
The only problem is that these stories virtually always get debunked. Remember when we learned within the last year that the “miracle” D.C. school system was graduating many of its students without the requisite requirements?
Now, we have a new scandal revealed in an exposé by reporters Erica L. Green and Katie Benner of the New York Times. They investigated the private K-12 T.M. Landry School in Louisiana, which was famed for getting its mostly black and working-class students into elite colleges.
But they found “a darker reality” at T.M. Landry, a school founded by Michael and Tracey Landry, with phony academic records and claims of abuse of students. The story hit so hard because the school had so much positive publicity. It says, in part:
Landry success stories have been splashed in the past two years on the “Today” show, “Ellen” and the “CBS This Morning.” Education professionals extol T.M. Landry and its 100 or so kindergarten-through-12th-grade students as an example for other Louisiana schools. Wealthy supporters have pushed the Landrys, who have little educational training, to expand to other cities. Small donors, heartened by the Web videos, send in a steady stream of cash.
But it goes on to say:
In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.
The Landrys’ deception has tainted nearly everyone the school has touched, including students, parents and college admissions officers convinced of a myth.
The Landrys did not return phone calls from The Washington Post but did speak with the Times reporters and denied the accusations in one interview. In another interview, the story says, Michael Landry “accused The Times of saying that it was wrong for T.M. Landry to want the best for its black students.” That, of course, was not what the Times was saying.
The expose underscores what close observers have known for a long time: There are no “miracles” in education — even though politicians like to claim there are.
Seven years ago, education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch called out President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, for hailing schools that, on inspection, were not the successes that had been claimed. At the school Duncan called out, only 17 percent passed state tests. The middle school students at the school Obama praised were in the fifth percentile in the state in math, and in the first percentile in writing and reading.
Joel Klein, chancellor of New York public schools when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, resigned in 2010 after an eight-year tenure. He stepped down around the time it was discovered that the standardized test score improvements both men had touted came from exams that had been made easier to pass. No miracle there.
No miracle, either, in New Orleans, where a collection of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, replaced the traditional system after Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city. The charter experiment there has been labeled “miraculous” in large part because test scores have risen. But it seems worth noting that, according to 2018 results for the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program exams — which assess a student’s understanding of English, math, science and social studies in grades three through eight — only 26 percent of students achieved “mastery” or above. That’s less than the statewide average of 34 percent.
Those are just a few examples of non-miracle schools and districts, which Comer warned against two decades ago. Comer is known for his leadership of the Yale University Child Study Center and is the creator of the Comer School Development Program, which has been used in hundreds of schools.
His book from 20 years ago makes clear that there are no quick fixes in education. Expecting a “miracle” is a waste of time and hope. He blames racism, family decay and a lack of community cohesion on the deterioration of urban public schools and argues that the problem can’t be solved by solely focusing on what goes on in schools while ignoring the outside lives of students.
Education psychologist David Berliner, one of this country’s most distinguished education researchers, wrote recently that while schools do need to make big changes, “the big problems of American education are not in America’s schools.” He wrote:
It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. . . .
Educational problems also have roots in the numbers of kids living in dysfunctional families where opioid and other drug addictions, or mental illness, is not treated. Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems stem also from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families too frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children.
We “ain’t gonna find no miracles here," as Bruce Springsteen sang in “Human Touch.” The question is when Americans will stop looking for them in their schools.